Welcome to The Death of Publishing, Take Forty

By Neal Comment

clipart-depressed-worker.jpgA publishing veteran with more than a decade of experience emailed us with a bleak assessment of the industry’s future, starting with the premise that Borders might go out of business next year. If that happens, she says, “most author advances will radically decline because there will not be enough books sold at one major retailer and the independents to make today’s typical advances earn out.” And it only gets worse from there:

“Right now, the returns on hardcovers is a whopping 40 percent, so you can see why it would be tough to try to convince buyers at Barnes & Noble to buy more of a single title. Agents will either go out of business or severely cut their staffs. Fewer books means less money and many agents will not be able to make a living. Some might say that fewer books will mean more time and attention will be paid to individual titles—not so said the wise man. Why? Because publishers will have to reduce their head counts if they sell fewer books and the axe will cut across sales, marketing and editorial depts. The glory days of book publishing are gone.”

Not that she’ll miss them: “Publishing is a business whose key players try to take advantage of each other,” this insider claims. “Agents try to take advantage of publishers, publishers try to take advantage of authors, and booksellers try to take advantage of readers by offering them overpriced merchandise, or books that are nothing more than marketing slogans… For many many years publishing has been about egos, advances, slights, agents and hurtful gossip—instead of books… I am so frustrated right now that I think flipping burgers would be more rewarding.”

At that last sentence, longtime readers may recall our lack of sympathy for such handwringing, which only grows fiercer at a time when so many people who cared passionately about books have been cast out of their jobs. We understand why the “survivors” would feel dispirited, but frankly this lay-down-and-die attitude doesn’t help anyone, and it’s certainly not going to “save” publishing.

Do the things our sales veteran describes happen in this business? Of course they do. But there are plenty of people for whom book publishing is not a constant game of oneupmanship, who are dedicating themselves to figuring out how to do books better. It’s easy to resent publishing’s corporate overlords and other oligarchs for getting us into this mess. Then what?